Do you wanna tell me a little bit about yourself, Chris? What do you do?
My day job is, I’m an assistant editor on reality TV shows. I’ve also done some associate producer work on this CBS web series on social justice—that was awesome. I went to Columbia, blah blah…I was an English major and I mostly studied Victorian and Romantic poetry. Which is interesting because now my whole field and focus has really shifted! Bye, dead white people!
Also something that might be interesting—I got into the whole TV thing because my parents work in TV. My dad has a small production company in Dallas. He works with a lot of the megachurches…so his biggest client is T.D. Jakes, which is one of the very famous megachurch pastors. Which is interesting because I grew up in an environment that actually was very Black—not where I went to school but where I worked—it was this combination of people who were very financially successful, but also you know a lot of people in the church who are middle class or poor. Also the guy himself, T.D. Jakes, was very apolitical. Actually did a thing about police brutality when this whole thing happened.
It’s always been a very hybrid thing for me: working in this very Black environment, but then politically “question mark,” and then also going to a very white school, and then going to Columbia. Very contradictory. So I’m just trying to synthesize all these contradictory things.
So your neighborhood, or the place where you grew up, was really white?
Not totally! My parents got divorced when I was really young, and I was going back and forth. My dad relatively quickly moved to a very white suburb. My mom eventually moved to the same white suburb, which is also where I went to school, but not until I was a freshman in high school. And before that, we lived with my grandmother in Eau Cliffe, which is basically the hood.
What was your experience of anti-blackness up until recently?
Well, the experience of it was a lot, but my consciousness of it was very low. My awareness was very small. I went to this super super super white school, and more or less assimilated successfully. I got called an “oreo” a lot, by white people. At the time I was like “haha that’s so funny! I just hang out with so many white people, I’m so white. This is so cute.” But actually, something interesting is that, so my poor incredibly white high school tried to have a diversity committee. And my mom was on the committee. And they published a report on diversity, and one of the things in the report was like “look at how racist you are, ‘cause all these white kids called a Black student an ‘oreo.’” And I was like “oh my god, are they talking about me?” Because I wasn’t even conscious!
When would you say that you started to be more racially conscious?
I was really fortunate to have in some ways be prepared. I didn’t have to go from totally fine with people calling me an Oreo to being politically conscious. I would say, a) around senior year of college, I was in a club with a lot of more politically and socially active students, and that really exposed me to that point of view. A lot of it was Facebook. People who would post Jezebel articles. I read a lot of that.
Actually, earlier in 2014 I started reading August Wilson’s plays and I started getting really into soul music—famous stuff, not like I’m digging deep—all of Aretha Franklin and all of Stevie Wonder. Because all of my heroes have always been artists, discovering that there were all of these Black people who could be heroes to me in the same way as William Shakespeare…I’m not gonna tell you that August Wilson’s plays are better than William Shakespeare, but I will tell you that August Wilson’s plays are better than Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill…
What meant a lot for me was, “what are the customs, what are the rituals, what are the thoughts for Black people.” To me that was really the biggest part of learning about Blackness.
So I guess it would be senior year of high school all the way up until 2014, I got a lot of Black heroes…You know when you’re an artsy person you’re better at understanding things through art than through life. So all of these Black artists coming from a Black perspective with Black ideas—what meant a lot for me was, “what are the customs, what are the rituals, what are the thoughts for Black people.” To me that was really the biggest part of learning about Blackness.
What do you think of how the movement for Black lives has grown since fall 2014?
I wasn’t really conscious of thinking what the degree of impact would be. I never really thought about it. I am glad that it’s grown to the extent that it has. Because I don’t have a background in political activism I didn’t have a framework to say “okay this is a movement that’s going to have this level of impact” I don’t even know what the levels of impact are. But I do think that from the beginning I was pretty confident from seeing the level of response from ppl that some kind of reaction would be forced. Not even from an ethical perspective, just from the very logistical perspective—a lot of the time when you show people footage of what the police do, actually American citizens don’t think that it’s a fair tradeoff for their security. Or at least that it’s an okay thing to do. Until they see it as a trade-off for their security and then they’re like “okay, whatever, tackle all the Black people you want!”
…there was that report that came out on Facebook that was like “this is how many unarmed Black men were killed this year. This is how many unarmed Black men were killed the previous year. So that stuff had always been happening, but it was amazing to see when you actually bring this to people’s attention, how much against it they are. So that’s what made me think that not necessarily just the Black Lives Matter movement but police brutality in general would receive some kind of major political response.
Yeah it was just so egregious, it was like— “you can’t really just ignore that. You know that, right?”
You won’t succeed in doing nothing. You’re gonna have to do something.
Have you gone to any protests or done any activism since fall 2014?
All I’ve done is I went to two of the very large protests that happened here in New York.
You do what you can, and you kinda have to choose what works for you.
I dunno, I would like to be doing more.
Another interviewee said that too. She doesn’t really know how to get involved.
For me it’s less how to get involved—I have Google. I know people who’re really plugged in. If my friends were those people, I would be doing a lot more…If I was gonna be sitting at the table at my apartment and there were people who were like “so there’s a thing on Thursday and a thing on Friday” I would be like “well I can’t make the thing on Thursday because I have work; I’ll be there on Friday.” You know what I mean? Like if that was my community and it was always there. It’s just not. Even the ones that I went to, I went because a friend was organizing people to go.
Just doing your best to at least 10% empathize with that person and that family, to sit with that tragedy and try to recognize it for what it is, is hard.
To me it’s much more “is this my community or not” than “do I have the basic, raw information.”
Talking about how egregious all of the goings-on were in fall 2014, how were you reacting to it personally?
I was really shocked at first…I’ve absolutely gotten to the point where it becomes emotionally taxing and draining. Because you do commit a lot of yourself. Less what it means for me personally in the sense that like, am I afraid of police walking down the street now. It kind of gave a name to the feeling I think I have always felt about being a little bit uncomfortable.
And just doing your best to at least 10% empathize with that person and that family, to sit with that tragedy and try to recognize it for what it is, is hard. And you don’t even want to say it’s hard because nothing happened to you personally. Just trying to not minimize it and to let it be a thing that really happened, is hard.
Some people are calling the movement for Black lives “the new Civil Rights Movement.” What do you think about that?
I think that you hope that it becomes a movement that is comparable to the movement of the 50s and 60s. I don’t think that it is now. I don’t think that it necessarily has to be. Because…this is something that has really been born out of one specific event. Really to me what’s more likely to happen as a result of everything that has built up around police brutality and Black Lives Matter is to give people training in organizing, because there’s an immediate need, and to radicalize people that otherwise would not be.
I think that is the material out of which you make the new movement, but I don’t think that it’s happening now. I think it’s a lot more about this moment and this political climate, than any particular movement. But maybe that might’ve been like in the 50s and 60s. There’s a very particular narrative we have now…“first we went to court for Brown, and then, they got the Voting Rights Act. That’s the Civil Rights Movement.” But it might’ve felt a lot like this, “there’s just a lot in the air, and James Baldwin has articles in the New York Times!” The way Ta-Nehisi Coates does now.
What do you think the goals of the movement are right now?
I think the very specific goals of the primary movement are in regards to police brutality. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that—you have to start somewhere. I think police brutality is the right issue to galvanize the people that need to be galvanized. I think the immediate political goal is do something, whether it’s on the state, local, or federal level, about police in Black communities…I’m just interested to see how this becomes a movement about all the different ways we can make it better for Black people to live in America.
I’m interested to see how this becomes a movement about all the different ways we can make it better for Black people to live in America.
Or, for America to deal with the fact there is a large ethnically and culturally distinct group that is nonetheless American in a very specific way. This cultural group of African-Americans is distinct from people that live in Africa and is a thing that Black people made as a result of being people from a bunch of different places and being moved to another country and enslaved…So I hope that’s what the movement’s eventually about: how do you deal with that?
What do you think about the tactics you’ve been seeing? A lot of the actions in the last year were pretty disruptive. People have been kind of split about that, even in the Black community. What are your thoughts about that?
I think that once upon a time, Martin and some others made this really great tactic that was basically performing saintliness—in addition to doing a bunch of other things! Like specific economic things! Like “I’m gonna get rid of this bus company’s revenue!” I think that that tactic was very useful in the 1960s, and I think that it’s completely useless now, because white people are used to it.
Were white people surprised, did white people just get shocked at how those negroes were human, when those churchgoers in Charleston said “we forgive the white guy who shot all these people?” No! No white people were surprised by that! I mean I’m not saying they shouldn’t’ve done that, I’m all for it, but that didn’t make any white people uncomfortable. Whereas, shutting down roads and interrupting a “good progressive” makes white people super uncomfortable! And I think that that’s a good sign…
And I don’t believe that everything has to be a riot. I don’t believe in the word riot—I don’t think everything has to be a thing where you destroy property. Though I think that destroying property is probably the most direct affront to the American system of white supremacy slash capitalism…
Were white people surprised, did white people just get shocked at how those negroes were human, when those churchgoers in Charleston said “we forgive the white guy who shot all these people?” No!
But, interrupting Bernie Sanders…yes, it’s a very good tactic, in my opinion…I think that tactics have to be disruptive, otherwise they won’t work!
I don’t know how my parents feel about it.
Can you talk more about that?
My family has always been big on, maybe not explicitly political conversations, but we’ve always been big on talking about ethics, topics of the day, whatever whatever…just recently I had a conversation with my dad specifically about race. I have always gotten the “be aware of your race and how that will affect you personally in surviving in the world” talk. That has always been a part of our discourse. I guess I was surprised…My dad’s a very mild-mannered kind of dude. But I was surprised by how many of the radical or militant things I said that he wasn’t shocked. I don’t know if he would endorse it. I was surprised to see how far he seemed to be willing to go. My stepmom has always been pro-black in ways that I didn’t understand when I was 16. And now I’m like “oh, you were right about everything.”
My mom’s an actress so she’s always been the most liberal of my blended family. When everyone was home for Christmas we had a whole big debate about police brutality. My mom was on the more liberal side because she always is. My aunt is a police officer and…that side of the family is more on the side of “just do what the police officer said and there won’t be a problem.”
…and you don’t get a chance to do what the police officer says or not if they fire their weapon within 30 seconds of getting out of the car.